“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.”
So reads an excerpt from the first chapter of George Orwell’s seminal, much quoted and prescient novel 1984, a dystopian work of literature that explores the oppressiveness of authoritarian regimes, where freedom is a word that doesn’t even exist.
The words of the novel, like the above quote, feel uneasy because the idea that at any single moment one’s privacy can be exposed to be a fallacy is a frightening way of living. Even in today’s open age, with Mark Zuckerberg ushering in an open way of existing, people still value some semblance of a life that is theirs and nobody else’s. They want to keep snippets of themselves to themselves, or at the very least privy to the people they trust and love the most.
It’s no surprise that since the government revealed plans that it is looking to change the law so that every single phone call, email, text message sent and received and every website visited by people living and working in the UK is to be recorded, stored and ‘monitored’, there has been a resurgence in discussion about the ideas and lessons explored in Orwell’s powerful novel.
This is an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran,” commented Nick Pickles, director of the Big Brother Watch campaign.
“This is an absolute attack on privacy online and it is far from clear this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant costs to internet businesses. If this was such a serious security issue why has the Home Office not ensured these powers were in place before the Olympics?”
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, stated that this new “snooping law” as it has been dubbed by the media, does not represent an infringement on civil liberties, and reassured people that the government would ensure that there would be safeguards to make people feel comfortable.
“Let’s be clear, this is not about extending the reach of the state into people’s data, it’s about trying to keep up with modern technology,” prime minister David Cameron added, trying to bring a sense of calm to the debate.
“But we should remember that this sort of data, used at the moment, through the proper processes, is absolutely vital in stopping serious crime and some of the most serious terrorist incidents that could kill people in our country, so it’s essential we get this right.”
It’s unclear whether the proposed bill will be included in the Queen’s speech in May, but what is certain that in the meantime, this fascinating debate, with powerful arguments on both sides of the divide, will generate some fascinating ideas and viewpoints.